Saturday, August 04, 2007

Mitt Romney, J. J. Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Hilary Clinton

Adam Gurri of Sophistpundit posted a comment on Lost Legacy (yesterday) ‘Noticed by Other Blogs no 1’, in reference to my post ‘Leave Adam Smith Out of It’ (earlier on Friday) which quoted from a speech by ex-Governor Romney and his silly statement about Hilary Clinton, Senator for New York and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President:

"Hillary Clinton just gave a speech the other day about her view on the economy. She said we have been an on-your-own society. She said it's time to get rid of that and replace that with shared responsibility and we're-in-it-together society," Romney told the crowd. "That's out with Adam Smith and in with Karl Marx."

Romney’s grasp of the history of the human race is not strong. Hilary’s is stronger. If the ‘on-your-own society’ characterises the USA today, she makes a point worth making if it is to be replaced by an emphasis on “shared responsibility and we're-in-it-together society’. To Romney that is straight out of Karl Marx.

Adam Gurri of Sophistpundit of endorses the point (here) that I made about markets – that in them we all become dependent as individuals upon every other individual.

We do not become an atomised society, of each against all. Those like Romney, who believe we do and that we are members of ‘on-your-own society’, simply do not understand the markets of which they profess to be in favour.

Moreover, they haven’t really understood Adam Smith’s thinking – I suspect, but I could be wrong, that they have never read Adam Smith beyond a book of quotations – and they have come to believe what modern media writers, including films about Wall Street, tell them about ‘greed being good’, ‘Darwinian competition produces the survival of the fittest’, and assorted nonsense about ‘invisible hands making everything they do all right in terms of public welfare’.

Adam Gurri expresses it neatly:

So I … felt like you did justice to a concept that no one ever seems to pay lip service to--the fact that the free market, which is often characterized as a place that isolates and exploits, is actually a community of individuals who depend upon one another.

The "free" part of "free market" is just the fact that that interdependence is built upon choices made by the individuals themselves; doesn't change the fact that we're all in this together, as they say

Now that’s what I call a profound reading of Adam Smith’s thinking. He lectured at Glasgow University (1751-63) around the theme of the long view of history, looking backwards to the origins of human society. He characterised the individual in a small band of hunters by their total independence in the provision of every thing they needed within a social context. The hunter was self-sufficient in meeting his needs and the needs of his family; his dependence was restricted to his needs for safety and community. The gatherers fed themselves and their children and shared the provision of their needs and community.

J. J. Rousseau saw the ‘savage’ as proud, independent and free, and he lamented the loss of these qualities in 18th-century inequalities and dependence, outlined brilliantly in his discourse on the Inequality of Man. Every student should read this book at least before he or she is 20. And then they should reflect on the fact that it was Rousseau’s dependence on others that enabled him to write his book (the producers of paper, pens and ink, printing facilities, and shops to sell them; coins that made for money; carriage services that transported them across Europe (1755) and to the American colonies; builders who built the houses he stayed in, roads that enabled him to travel, households that fed, clothed and ‘comforted’ him, and educated readers all over who had been educated to read and to understand his concepts.

But none of this would have happened without humans in society moving way from the ‘savage’ life. We know this true because even in the 18th century most of the world was not occupied by avid readers of Rousseau’s discourse on inequality or anybody writing rival theses; it was occupied by innumerable separate tribes of humans who still lived the ‘savage’ life. In the beginning ‘all of the world was America’ (John Locke) and without the agricultural age, all of the world would have remained in that state, as it had done for hundreds of thousands of years since the evolution of the human species, one of about 20 hominid species that had occupied the Earth’s surface for several million years.

Hilary Clinton was not taking humans towards a collectivist dawn; she was reminding her listeners that the ‘shared responsibility and we're-in-it-together society’ was part of modern commercial (now capitalist) society, and is closer to the commercial society that Adam Smith wrote about than is Mitt Romney’s ‘greed is good’ nightmare.


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